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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 30, 2001

Many top CEOs say MBA not necessarily ticket to success

USA Today

George Bush may be the first president with an MBA degree, but U.S. business is run by CEOs with a hodgepodge of degrees in everything from atmospheric physics to French literature.

Carly Fiorina said a study of the past gives the present perspective.

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Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, a medieval history and philosophy major (Stanford '76), says her curiosity about the transformation from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance folds neatly into the digital awakening that she must now address.

"A century of sustained and enduring human achievement" long ago leaves her confident that "we have, in fact, seen nothing yet," Fiorina says.

Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner never took a single business course as he earned a double major in English and theater (Denison '64). He has nudged his three sons into liberal arts. He was reminded of a favorite English professor, Dominic Consolo, when reading the script for "Dead Poets Society", a movie about a passionate poetry teacher starring Robin Williams. Eisner considers it to be one of the best movies Disney has made.

"Literature is unbelievably helpful because no matter what business you are in, you are dealing with interpersonal relationships," Eisner says. "It gives you an appreciation of what makes people tick."

Ambitious college grads peddling offbeat degrees in a job market gone sour can take heart that such success stories are far from rare. One-third of CEOs running the nation's largest 1,000 companies have a master's of business administration degree, according to executive search firm Spencer Stuart, many others do not.

Certainly, many CEOs take a more conventional educational path: Cisco's John Chambers added an MBA to his law degree, and Enron CEO Kenneth Lay added a Ph.D. in economics to his MBA. But for every CEO who takes a businesslike approach, there are those who follow pure interests and trample practicality on the way to the top.

Michael Eisner said literature shows how people tick.

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No one disputes that there is a place for the traditional MBA. Miramar Systems just hired a Harvard MBA for business development. But CEO Neal Rabin, who majored in creative writing (UCLA '80), says chief executives who learn at the knee of Harvard case studies know too many ways that companies fail. They find themselves paralyzed by fear, he says.

Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Dell Computer, was a pre-med biology major at the University of Texas before dropping out after his freshman year.

"I took one course that was remotely related to business: macroeconomics," Dell says. "One of the things that really helped me is not approaching the world in a conventional sense. There are plenty of conventional thinkers out there."

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates also left college without earning a degree — Harvard's most famous dropout had been studying computer science. More typical, however, are executives who completed school but whose course of study now seems irrelevant.

These CEOs say their offbeat majors have been anything but irrelevant. Some say they still apply the knowledge learned in pursuing those degrees in making day-to-day business decisions.

Others say the degrees helped launch their careers where economics, finance or business may have not.

Any good education would have been enough to get a foot in Corning's door 37 years ago, says CEO John Loose. But it's unlikely he would have been chosen for his first big international assignment without a degree in East Asian history (Earlham '64).

"To have an understanding of the history and culture of Koreans, Japanese, Indians and Chinese was invaluable," says Loose. Even today, Corning continues to court Asia as a rare bright spot in the depressed fiber-optic market.

Likewise Sue Kronick, now group president of Federated Department Stores, majored in Asian studies (Connecticut College '73).

Her rise from a Bloomingdale's buyer was helped by understanding India's economic system so well that she found ways to slash the cost of imports.

"My background served me well," Kronick says. "You tend to get more narrow in point of view as time marches on. Liberal arts is about approaching problems from a different point of view."

John Chambers said business and law degrees can pay off.

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Unlike President Bush (MBA Harvard '75; BA history Yale '68), 87 percent of Fortune 300 CEOs did not attend an Ivy League school, according to Spencer Stuart's Route to the Top survey last year. Corning's Loose got his degree from Earlham College, a 1,200-student school founded by Quakers in Richmond, Ind. Denison University, attended by both Eisner and history major Terry Jones ('70), CEO of Sabre Group/Travelocity.com, is a 2,100-student college in Granville, Ohio.

Offbeat routes to the top are not restricted to CEOs with liberal arts degrees. After earning a master's ('71) and Ph.D. ('73) in chemical engineering from Drexel University, Ramani Ayer accepted an entry-level job with Hartford Financial Services Group.

"My professors thought I was nuts," Ayer says. Today, he is Hartford's CEO.

"The mathematical ways of looking at the world are very transferable from engineering to insurance," Ayer says. Those who rise to the top know why things happen the way they do, he says. "Engineering is very good training for knowing why."

An industrial engineering degree (North Carolina State '71) eventually landed Gordon Harton, president of jean company Lee, into the fashion world. "I wouldn't be the person you'd want to select the hottest colors for next spring," he says. "And I can't remember using calculus in any marketing decisions."

Michael Dell said conventional thinking is not always an asset.

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Harton worked 15 years in operations, doing plant layout, scheduling and capacity planning, but discovered he was more interested in marketing and fashion.

Engineering teaches that the best solution is usually the most simple — a principle Lee applied when its marketers were quick to spot the trend for baggy fitting jeans simply by talking to boys who rode skateboards.

Upoc CEO Gordon Gould says his environmental studies degree (Pitzer College '92) has transferred easily to computer systems and helped him understand how a computer virus might spread. Upoc is a service that lets teens and young adults get tailored information and exchange messages on mobile phones and pagers.

Blue Shield of California CEO Bruce Bodaken has a bachelor's (Colorado State '72) and a master's (Colorado '75) degree in philosophy and once taught an introduction to ethics course.

"Philosophy teaches you to ask deeper questions, how to think through a tough problem," Bodaken says.